Friday, April 22, 2005

Gimme that Old-time Humanism

In my mind, humanism has never had the pejorative connotations which it has among certain religious folk. For one, my first exposure to the word came in my teen years while reading the introduction to St. Thomas More's Utopia which no doubt described More as the quintessential humanist. For another, my parents and both my paternal grandparents were all beneficiaries of a Jesuit education, where humanistic concerns walked hand-in-hand with theological devotion. As one of the Church Fathers said, "The glory of God is a man fully alive," and it is one my greatest regrets that such a truly inspirational vision is severely weakened even on Jesuit university campuses.

It was just as saddening for me to discover that the connotations of the word "humanism" had taken on the trappings of explicitly secular humanism. There are various versions of "Humanist Manifestos" written over the course of the last century and signed by many rapidly forgotten people and many people rapidly being forgotten, including the quickly-fading star of John Dewey. I have not even glanced at one this millennium, which may say just as much about my irrelevance as that of the would-be humanists. However, I worry I may have found a far worse alternative to merely secular humanism.

Robinson Jeffers, one of the founders of Earth Day, holds the regrettable claim to be a promulgator of the ersatz philosophy that he names "Inhumanism." Of course, he tries to counter the term's obvious connection with inhumanity, but inhumanity itself appears to be the logical outcome of his reasoning. Jeffers declares that his goal is
" present a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence. It seems time that our race began to think as an adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person. This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist, though two or three people have said so and may again. It involves no falsehoods, and is a means of maintaining sanity in slippery times; it has objective truth and human value. It offers a reasonable detachment as a rule of conduct, instead of love, hate, and envy. It neutralizes fanaticism and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty."

I won't spend much time picking apart the blatant contradictions of this selection, such as whether a philosophy that emphasizes "not-man" really cares all that much about having human value. But I do think it provides some insight into another, more infamous teacher of philosophy, namely Princeton's Peter Singer. His favored term of disapprobation, the hideous neologism "speciesist", no doubt helps his ideas enjoy greater currency than if he had followed the lead of certain fundamentalists and bioethicists who use the word "humanism" as a pejorative. By the force of linguistic analogy, It helps conflate opponents of animal rights with racists and sexists who deny the equality of their equals.

But I think critical interviewers, who are usually inclined to ask about his views on infanticide and bestiality, have not pressed him with a fundamental question: if it is bigoted to treat animals differently than humans, why ought we not simply treat humans as we generally treat animals today? One can even write a short, tasteless joke based on this rarely-seen reversal:

A deer hunter was confronted in the forest by a lover of animals who berated his hobby, declaring "Animals are no different than people!"
The hunter replied: "Wow, you're right! I see the error of my ways now."
So then the hunter shot the animal-lover, gutted him, fried up his liver for dinner, and mounted his head in the living room.

One of course hopes that such a mockery of ethical reasoning is confined to jokes and satire, but alas that hope is a vain one. I am told that some of the Southern apologists for slavery justified their institutional brutality by reasoning that certain types of men were not fit to rule themselves, and thus were better off being ruled by their masters. When their opponents pointed out that incompetent self-rule was by no means limited to African slaves, the apologists granted that point. But then they simply followed their reasoning to its conclusion and suggested that poor white laborers should also be enslaved.

Such an error suggests that the reductio ad absurdum is an even weaker argument than the appeal to authority, especially when humanity is rhetorically reduced to universal insignificance.

No comments: